The Super lives a quiet, solitary life, taking care of a rundown Toronto apartment building in exchange for a break on the rent. After what happened to his wife and daughter, he craves the routine and the solitude. More than craves: he requires it. As Mike Barnes’s striking new novel opens, the Super – that’s the only name he’s ever given – receives a note that fractures his orderly existence. The missive includes an address and the letters “TAL,” an acronym for the eponymous organization, a group that coalesced around the Super during his stay at a psychiatric hospital decades before.
In the parlance of the league, an “adjustment” is required when a member sees “something wildly out of whack. Something that needs straightening. Now.” Via covert actions, the group – and, later, the Super himself – attempts to restore order to situations in which it has been undermined. (The adjustment always proceeds on the league’s own terms: when a student pleads for redress from “a persecuting TA,” the Super responds by unveiling the student’s history of plagiarism.) Following up on the mysterious note, the Super is reunited with one of his former cohorts, and drawn into a plot that involves neglect, possible murder, sexual assault, and pornography.
Recounted in fragmented, almost impressionistic prose that is sharp as glass shards, The Adjustment League chronicles the Super’s “window,” a cyclical period of heightened lucidity that precedes mental dissipation and collapse. The window lends the narrative its ticking clock, amplifying the suspense – will the Super complete the adjustment before it closes? – and creating a genuine sense of pathos. As the window narrows, we witness, in breathtakingly intimate terms, the Super’s increasing fragmentation and breakdown.
Despite what a cursory synopsis might suggest, The Adjustment League isn’t a revenge thriller, and the Super (his moniker notwithstanding) is no straightforward hero. Barnes’s novel is an intense journey into the underbelly of contemporary society, and a visceral descent into darkness. It is a powerful and original work, which succeeds as both a genre mystery and something altogether deeper. It is not an easy read – the language is vivid and clear, but the Super’s perceptions and understandings are often arcane – but that is also the novel’s greatest strength. The Adjustment League is the sort of book that requires – and rewards – wholesale immersion and careful attention, which result in a sense of connection both surprising and disturbing.